Class Warfare: Inside the fight to Fix America’s Schools, Steven Brill’s ethically challenged, error ridden, incoherent yet highly illuminating love letter to the corporate education reformers bent on privatizing public education, is an extraordinary and illuminating document and one that, in a sane world, could easily serve as an indictment against the very process and people it was written to lionize. Perhaps, in time, that day will come. Perhaps, indeed, it is closer than we think.
In the main, Class Warfare tells the tragic and true story of how a handful of extraordinarily wealthy and ruthless private citizens in league with their corporate and political allies have been able to undermine the democratic process in order to try to remake the public school system in their image: that is to say, to remake it as another cog in the wheel of the ever more destructive unregulated free market which has brought the globe to the brink of chaos and profited no one but themselves.
Class Warfare is a virtual bestiary of corporate reformers and their machinations, none more revealing and repulsive than Brill’s almost joyful accounting of when, just after Obama’s election, the hedge fund group Democrats For Education Reform, ganged up on the brilliant Linda Darling Hammond — she who had been criss-crossing the country with Obama as his educational advisor — to not merely torpedo her chances of being selected Secretary of Education but to insure that Arne Duncan or Joel Klein or Michelle Rhee would be. Imagine a school system run by someone with the integrity and knowledge of a Linda Darling Hammond instead of the increasingly despised Duncan and you will begin to understand just how destructive and vicious the “ reformers” truly are. You can also see that these folks found themselves the perfect scribe in Brill.
In short, Brill reveals how men (and they are almost all men) with no knowledge of education whatsoever, and no mandate except their own sense of an almost regal entitlement, came to impose their myopic and disastrous schemes (charter schools, high stakes testing, value added metrics and the like) upon a nation before it knew it was happening, who was making it happen and for what reasons they were doing so. Students across the country, from sea to shining sea, are now suffering the consequences.
An essential part of this process was and is a public relations campaign designed to defame a profession of a singularity, magnitude and ferocity wholly unprecedented in American history. By ceaseless repetition of expertly produced nonsense – such as that poverty, class size, nutrition, and parental care are all rendered irrelevant by the presence of a Super Teacher, who by definition is a twenty something Ivy League educated, non-unionized Teach For America educational hobbyist – a previously honored profession somehow became responsible for the fall of a nation. Those professionals, of course, are teachers – specifically unionized public school teachers — who for the past ten years have been demonized and scape goated by pundits and politicians who have absolutely no idea what they are talking about but are too ideologically chained and arrogant to care. Stephen Brill is more chained, more arrogant and less knowledgeable than most but this has not stopped him from being catapulted into the status of instant education expert. Indeed, Time Magazine named him one of the 11 Most Important Education Activists of 2011 , largely on the strength of Class Warfare and two related articles that pretended to be about education but were actually little more than skillful union bashing. Brill, in fact, is a master of the arts of insinuation and elision. And at these oily arts he is a formidable figure in the repulsive and underhanded campaign against unions and teachers.
It is that campaign that I write about here for it is my school and to some degree my person who Brill uses to falsely malign an entire system.
Diane Ravitch, Valerie Strauss and Michael Winerip have all pointed out that Class Warfare is not really about education at all but about power politics and how they have played out in education when a group of very, very rich people get together and decide they know better than anybody else in the country how children should be educated. That at least was the pretense. As times goes on and more is reported it becomes clearer and clearer that there are immense fortunes to be made in privatizing education and many, if not all, of the corporate reformers are very, very interested in making them. What Ravitch, Strauss and Winerip did not mention, however, was how remarkably ignorant Brill is of even the most fundamental realities of how schools are run and who is responsible for running them. Class Warfare is chock a block full of scenarios that not merely reveal just how little Brill knows about education but also how little credibility he has. At the same time the same scenarios reveal how skilled a propaganda artist Brill is and in this way, Class Warfare can stand as a model for most corporate reform writing.
For example, in chapter one the author pulls the first and worst of a number of journalistic stunts that call his credibility into very serious question. In fact, it should expose Brill as an outright fraud. On page 17, Brill takes a page out of the Jason Blair/ Stephen Glass School of Fictitious Journalism and describes the horrendous performance of a public school teacher who doesn’t exist.
Or, if the ”teacher” does exist, he is completely unknown and unrecognizable to any of the people who ostensibly work with him. I know. I am one of those people. What makes the matter that much more egregious is the fact that the non existent teacher is the only description of a public school teacher at work in the 400 plus pages of Brill’s tome. Such, I believe, is not a coincidence.
But I am getting ahead of myself. First, a little background.
Brill begins and ends Class Warfare by contrasting two schools in Harlem, New York, a locale that outside of New Orleans is ground Zero for the charter school takeover of the public school system. It is that section of Class Warfare, slim though it is, that I deal with in this writing as I, unlike any other reviewer, have first hand knowledge. The two schools, PS 149, a traditional public elementary school, and Harlem Success Academy One, the first in Eva Moskowitz’s burgeoning charter school empire, share or, in the parlance of the New York City Department of Education, are “co- located” in the same building, “separated”, in the words of Brill, “only by a fire door.”
Actually, they are separated by a gulf that Brill dares not mention or perhaps even glimpse as to do so would shatter his fiction that the two schools are somehow on equal footing. Following are some of the differences Brill somehow fails to mention. As Brill well knows or should know, charter schools can make demands on parents – forcing them to sign contracts that they will participate in school programs, check their children’s homework for example — that are unthinkable and wholly illegal in public schools. Charter schools can make demands of students – children must walk with one arm behind their back, for example, that could be considered corporal punishment and might cost public school teachers their careers. Charter schools can also jettison any child deemed a problem – and this they do, the moment that child threatens their sacred test scores, a luxury not granted to public schools. What’s more, there are immense differences in materials, computers, desks, chairs, and even the lighting in the two schools. If everything in Harlem Success Academy seems newer, brighter, cleaner and better it is because it is. The differences are so appalling that after a walk through by leaders of the NAACP last year, the organization wound up filing a law suit against charter co locations not dissimilar to the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education on the basis that the schools were separate and unequal. The lawsuit led to the surreal sight of hundreds of African American children in HSA orange and blue uniforms standing in front of a statue of Adam Clayton Powell protesting the NAACP in support of Moskowitz. The protest took place during school hours, a political act that would have found a public school principal in deep trouble had they ever been small enough to use children in such a way. Brill saw the same schools as the NAACP but apparently was not troubled in the least.
Then there is the political favoritism granted to charters, particularly the charters of Eva Moskowitz that have continued to open throughout the city in the face of ever fiercer community opposition. In February of 2010, Daily News journalist Juan Gonzales exposed the cozy relationship Moskowitz shared with then Chancellor Joel Klein when he published their emails following a Freedom of Information Law request with an article titled, “ Eva Moskowitz has special access to Schools Chancellor Klein and support others can only dream of.”
Then there is the issue of funding. While my colleagues and I are compelled to buy pencils for our students, HSA has more money than they know what to do with and, apparently, more privileges with which to do what they want with they money they have. Some weeks ago I returned home and was shocked and disgusted to find a glossy Harlem Success Academy (HSA) postcard bearing my seven year old daughter’s name and address on it inviting her to “Learn more about Success Academy Charter Schools” and “Attend an Information session in your neighborhood.” Leaving aside the deeply disturbing ethical issue of how the DOE, a public institution charged with the education of children, gave my daughter’s personal information to the likes of Eva Moskowitz, the mass mailings highlight the political pull figures like Moskowitz hold in the DOE that are simply unimaginable in a public school. It is estimated that HSA has a budget of over a million and a half dollars for public relations. Like everything else that throws a light on his narrative, Brill simply ignores the immense funding provided to HSA by its corporate allies.
Herein is another incident that is wholly unimaginable in a traditional pubic school: One afternoon in the midst of the 2008 presidential campaign I exited the tiny teacher’s lounge and literally bumped into presidential candidate Mitt Romney with his security men. (Mitt started blabbing to me immediately but in person he appeared so disturbingly artificial and strange I was shocked into momentary silence.) Romney was leaving the building following a tour of Moskowitz’s then just opened school. Needless to say smiling Romney’s tour did not include PS149 as Mitt’s concerns lay elsewhere than with our students or teachers or parents.
Brill finds such things not important enough to merit a single word. This is something worse than simply being disingenuous. Instead, Brill talks about test scores. Like many people who confuse technology with science and standardized tests scores with academic achievement, Brill is gaga over HSA’s stupendous test scores and contemptuous of PS149’s lack thereof.
Therein, for Brill, is the beginning and the end of the story.
It must be comforting to dwell in so simplistic a world that everything can be reduced to data. Like a good cheerleader for corporate education reform Brill betrays not a hint of doubt concerning the importance of the magic tests, even if like virtually all of the reformers, except to her credit, Moskowitz herself, Brill sent his children to private schools that hold such practices in complete disparagement.
Meanwhile, Moskowitz has publicly stated that she intends to create 40 such schools which would give her essentially her own private district. With the help of her well heeled allies, she is well on her way.
PS/MS 149 on the other hand is a struggling school that has been making incremental improvements for years, even according to the reductive criteria of standardized tests, which since the passing of the No Child Left Behind act in 2003 have become the only criteria allowed in whatever passes for the education debate in America. It has struggled in other ways as well, ways that are not measurable by data. In the last five years, for example, PS 149 has suffered the death of no less than six staff members, most of them teachers, as well as the loss of an entire floor of their building and a good part of their schoolyard to Harlem Success Academy. Somehow, behind the backs of the PS 149 School Leadership Team, PTA and staff, the school yard in which children played softball and kickball in the warm weather, was ripped up because Eva Moskowitz wanted a mini soccer field built there despite the fact that there was another such field some fifty feet away. This too merited an article by Juan Gonzalez.
The loss of physical space is called “sharing the building “and, as in every school in which a charter has moved in, it has forced teachers at 149 to share classrooms, teach and eat in storage closets and hallways and other grossly undignified scenarios that the reformers would never allow their own children or their teachers to suffer for a moment.
I was assigned a “room” that was, in fact, a space designed to store books. It had no phone, abysmal ventilation, horrific lighting and the feel of a place of abject desolation. The only way to reach me was on the school PA system. I would like to see, say, Bill Gates or Mike Bloomberg or Obama or any of these “reformers “ simply be forced to hang out in such a room, never mind have their children educated in one.. As a result of HSA expansion, the teachers lounge, an increasingly vital retreat in a school in which space and quiet are increasingly rare, was reduced to a 12 x 15 space which also contains lockers for the paraprofessionals. It too was built as a storage closet, an apposite metaphor for what was happening to the profession in general.
Class Warfare is to journalism what the much ballyhooed Bill Gates funded propaganda film Waiting For Superman is to documentary film making. It operates on the same principles and makes the same arguments as that shamelessly dishonest film; makes them, that is, until the fantasies of a Peter Pan like teaching corp, like Teach For America, willing and able to work 80 hour weeks breaks down under the weight of its own cruel and infantile absurdity.
Both book and film begin with a conclusion: because of its unionized workforce the public school system is an irredeemable disaster and must be immediately replaced by a system based on a corporate business model before the United States slips even further into becoming a third world country. Next, they both cherry pick “facts” or, better still, vignettes suggesting that the absolute worst situation or scenario is, in fact, the every day reality. (Davis Guggenheim’s ‘ Waiting For Superman was so low it included 15-year-old grainy video footage of a teacher reading a newspaper in his mid western classroom suggesting this was a common occurrence. Brill, however, goes further. Much further. Brill apparently conjures a very bad teacher out of thin air.
In a move to avoid acknowledging the collective responsibilities for what Jonathan Kozol has called the savage inequalities of contemporary American education directly attributable to the savage inequalities in American life, Brill parrots one of the more egregious self serving fantasies of corporate education reform and one absolutely beloved by Hollywood liberals: that of the Super Teacher whose dedication makes the misery, broken homes, abject poverty, homelessness, or absent parents absolutely irrelevant. ( For dramatizations of this cynical and infantile fantasy, see To Sir With Love, Freedom Writers, Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds or for that matter, Waiting For Superman )
Accordingly, Brill selects one teacher from Harlem Success Academy for whom he does nothing to disguise his admiration, who seems to fit the Hollywood model to a tee. Conversely, Brill selects a teacher from 149, a horrifying exemplar of the “civil service mentality” that Brill (and doubtless many the corporate reformer ) discerns in all public school teachers and for whom Brill does nothing to disguise his scorn.
For Harlem Success Academy Brill writes almost worshipfully of one Jessica Reid, an admirable, extremely dedicated young woman who Brill describes as teaching her students something called “juicy words “ and also, disturbingly, praising a student for making “total eye contact with the teacher throughout the lesson,” as if the poor kid was being hypnotized. As in many instances of pointing out differences between a public school teacher and a charter school teacher, Brill seems totally unaware that a NYC public school teacher could be reprimanded and even cited for corporal punishment by the Department of Education for demanding a student maintain “total eye contact “ with a teacher — as well they might be. As a parent I’d raise the roof if a teacher demanded such behavior from my child.
On Reid, Brill spends many, many words – some of them so sexist and absurdly inappropriate to the subject matter as to be beyond parody. Indeed, he writes a kind of People Magazine style mini bio of Reid built largely of stuff like this: “Standing in front of her new class in black stiletto heels, a black and pink crinoline dress, and a black and gold buttoned jacket not quite covering five different bracelets Reid called on them (students) one by one, to line up at the door.” As a product of Wendy Kopps’ deeply problematic absurdly praised Teach For America program, Reid, who “has her mother’s Swedish face, blue eyes and blond hair”, serves as Brill’s script perfect model of corporate reform’s solution to the problem of poor urban schools: the creation of an ephemeral army of eternally young Ivy league educated white people blessing the classrooms of the ghetto, inspiring them by what the brilliant Linda Darling Hammond sardonically called Teach For America’s “ innate superiority”.
Reid is told by her teacher mother that teaching is a profession in which “you can never sit down, ” and Reid, bless her heart, attempts to live up to this impossible dictum. Some of Brill’s other charter school super teachers are said to “teach with their hair on fire, “ yet another example of the reformers confusing the subtle craft of teaching with some kind of physical fitness program or even a state of frenzy. But, then again, what can you expect from people who have not spent a single minute of their lives in front of a classroom ?
Curiously, Brill seems to live in a narcissistic stupor so profound he seems utterly oblivious as to how his graphic descriptions of Reid’s Nordic beauty might be received in a community whose student body is almost 100 % African American, or how grossly offensive his pathetic worship of all things Ivy League, or his cringe inducing genuflecting before the obscenely rich reads in the working class community he is ostensibly not merely writing about but trying to save. Consider the following passage on Democrats for Education Reform ( DFER) co-founder and instant education expert Ravenel Boykin Curry IV: “At first look, Ravenel Boykin Curry IV seems the typical preppy socialite. He and his wife have homes in Manhattan (Central Park South), East Hampton, and the Dominican Republic. His father, Ravenel Curry III, also runs a money fund. He and his wife frequently appear in society columns , and she’s a well known high- end interior decorator. He went to Yale and Harvard Business School and is involved in all the de riguer charities.”
It almost twinkles.
When New York Times reporter Michael Winerip asked Brill a question concerning the grotesque disparity of wealth in America and how it played out in Brill’s narrative, Brill made this surreal reply: he did not see the “class warfare in American education as the rich versus the union guys, although now that you say it, I can see how you can draw that line.” Here’s Brill cheerleading for the richest individuals and the most powerful political forces in the United States who have joined hands in a ten year struggle and multimillion dollar public relations campaign to demonize teachers, break teacher’s unions and privatize education and Brill needs some one else to point out to him “ how you can draw that line.”
Unlike the unnamed “teacher” Brill describes working in 149, Brill’s selection of Reid has the distinct advantage of Reid being an actual identifiable human being, locatable in time and space, with a social security number, employed in the capacity Brill ascribes to her. Indeed, as her classroom was directly across the hall from the storage closet to which I was assigned, I saw her buzzing about day after day.
Sadly, Reid, like all of her colleagues at Harlem Success Academy avoided making eye contact with teachers from 149 even as they passed us a dozen times a day with their “scholars” , the pretentious, erroneous moniker Eva Moskowitz orders her teachers to call the students of Harlem Success Academy. (Apparently Moskowitz thinks the two related but very different words are synonymous.)
Then, one day, mid year, just like that, Reid was gone. I learned later that, with her health and marriage collapsing under the strain of the pressure cooker pace that Brill, like so many reformers, finds so necessary for all who would teach, she jumped ship mid year and was now working at a traditional public school. I wish her well.
In contrast to the lengthy hagiographic portrayal of the admirable Ms. Reid, Brill sums up the quality of work at PS 149, and by extension all unionized public school teachers across the nation with the following brief, devastating and disturbing description of an unnamed fourth grade teacher: “ Across the hall and one floor down from where I watched Reid coach her kids on essays, juicy words, and personal biographies – maybe a fifteen second walk – I looked in on a goateed teacher in jeans and a sweatshirt sitting back in a chair in front of eighteen fourth graders. His feet parked on the desk, he bellowed: “How many days in a week?” No answer. Half the children had their heads down. Most of the others were chattering away, except for two boys who were wrestling on the floor. The teacher asked again, louder. Still no answer. Then louder still, rocking almost to the point of falling backward in the chair. Then, “”Okay, let’s move on to something else.”
Holy Moly! No wonder the Chinese are kicking our ass !
As a parent and a teacher I would be far more appalled than Brill to encounter such a sight in any school, that much the more the school in which I work and serve. And I would do whatever I could do to see it was immediately addressed.
But there is a problem with this description and it is a problem shared by literally every member of the 149 faculty who read Brill’s depressing, distressing passage – read that is, by the only people who could know that it’s a lie. The unnamed bellowing slob is wholly unrecognizable to every single one of his supposed colleagues. He doesn’t exist.
The most charitable explanation offered by teachers — and, rest assured, none were feeling very sympathetic toward this apostle of accountability after reading what he wrote about our school – was that Brill “looked in” on a substitute teacher and was simply too lazy or arrogant to check the facts: that much the more when such a figure fit so perfectly into Brill’s ceaseless anti union narrative. But not a one had any memory of a substitute fitting Brill’s description nor one so appallingly inept. I, myself, have no idea how Brill came up with his disturbing image.
I am sure of three things, however. First, no faculty member at 149 has any idea of who Brill is talking about, especially the two female fourth grade teachers who most assuredly do not bellow, do not allow students to wrestle on the floor and do not have goatees. The second is that this is an excellent example of journalism of the lowest, most manipulative and sleaziest order. The third is that in a society which is as fragmented, ill educated and encouraged to seek scapegoats as is America in the age of the Tea Party, Brill’s horrifying description could go a long, long way toward turning decent well meaning, ill-informed people into the arms of the corporate education reformers; into the arms, that is, of those engaged in a two pronged billionaire backed propaganda campaign whose reach and financial backing is likely without parallel in American history. The first prong seeks to place responsibility for a culture in collapse on a single profession: public school teachers. The second prong is to convince the people of America that the evil unionized teacher is the cause of its deep decay and the only solution is to hand over the education of its children to the very 1% who have brought the globe to the brink of economic Armageddon and are rapidly making the USA into a Third World nation.
Of course, the idea of any serious journalist “looking in” on a class room – even the classroom of a teacher who verifiably existed — and then using this anecdote to malign an entire school is, on the face of it, laughable. But what Brill does with his bellowing phantom is far worse: the bellowing slob is the only description of a public school teacher in the entirety of Class Warfare. And just to make sure it sticks, Brill drudges it up a couple more times to insure its fresh in the reader’s mind.
Think about that.
Make no mistake about what Brill is doing with his phantom. Brill is doing what Brill does best: engaging in the slimy rhetorical trick found in all of the writing he has done on education but which Brill takes to another level altogether in Class Warfare: Brill insinuates. Here, Brill insinuates that this is the quality of our public school teachers. This is what the teacher’s union guarantees a “job for life”. This, and not our grotesque level of poverty, Third World disparity of wealth and poverty and insidious corporate culture preying on kids, is why our children are not learning like the children in Finland and Singapore – or for that matter, Harlem Success Academy and KIPP. And this, ultimately, is why America is not, in Barack Obama’s solipsistic coinage, “winning the future” and why we need to destroy all teacher’s unions and hand our school system over to the likes of Bill Gates and Geoffey Canada and Michelle Rhee and all their millionaire hedge fund buddies.
Indeed, had Brill done something vaguely approximating an ethical job as a journalist, he could have walked “another fifteen seconds, “looked in” on say, Mississippi born Rosa Brown, a master teacher who has been nurturing, guiding, comforting and in the deepest sense of the word educating New York’s urban poor for over 30 years now, albeit not in “black stiletto heels, a black and pink crinoline dress, and a black gold buttoned jacket not quite covering five different bracelets.” Or he could have walked a little further still and looked in on South Bronx born special educator and musical maestro Kevin Hill who for the past 28 years has touched the lives of hundreds if not thousands of kids, serving not merely as an excellent teacher but as a surrogate brother, wise but stern uncle, and knowing father to many who return years later to thank him for the life lessons they did not understand while his student. And for the music, the music that reached into their souls and told them in no uncertain terms that there was more to this life than we can know from a book.
Or he could have walked just a little more and sat in on Jaffar Smith, a Georgia born African American and the sole Muslim faculty member in a community where for many, Islam is the center of the world. Smith, an NYC Teaching Fellow who relocated his family from Egypt to teach in Harlem worked tirelessly both as a teacher and as a kind of ambassador to the Harlem Muslim neighborhood, constantly making home visits and building community in a neighborhood that needed it more than many.
Brill could come back and see Brown and Hill at work anytime he wished, I suppose, but tragically not Jaffar Smith who, after two years of satisfactory ratings was denied tenure and discontinued. Months after his dismissal, Smith’s absence is felt throughout the school like the loss of a limb. In the first week of September PS 149 received word of the sudden death of one of our Muslim students. The school leadership wanted to respond in a way that was sensitive to the family’s Islamic sensibilities and traditions but no one know what to do or how to do it. In a meeting where we stumbled and fumbled around searching for an adequate response to the child’s shocking death, one of the AP’s suddenly verbalized what everyone in the building immediately understood: “We need Jaffar Smith. “ And Jaffar Smith, being who he is, came back to 149 and helped prepare a dignified and culturally appropriate memorial service for the child and his family at the school.
Even now, months and months later, once or twice a week one of Smith’ former students approach me and ask me where he is, when he is coming back and if I can take a message to him. The message is always the same: ”please come back.” The look in their eyes and the confusion in their voices break the heart, as does the fact that, as yet, they cannot understand that he is not coming back. What these children are experiencing, I believe, is something akin to a death and it is the most striking condemnation of those who will reduce a school to a collection of dubious data and abstract edu-babble that I can think of.
In fact, Brill could have gone into any class room at all in 149 and witnessed teachers teaching and students learning albeit, none with their “ hair on fire” or engaging in semi-cult like practices such as demanding total eye contact. Instead, Brill chose to not speak to a single teacher at 149. (By his own admission Brill spoke to no less than 18 former or present teachers at Harlem Success Academy, every single one of them, , like witnesses against the mafia, requested anonymity. ) Instead Brill strolls down the stairs to interview Interim Acting principal Karol Burgess-Harper. On the way Brill observes the following: “Outside some children wandered the halls, while those moving from class to class did so boisterously, as if in the school yard. On the first floor, about forty kids were in the auditorium watching what seemed to be an action movie.”
Brill, almost as smitten with Burgess Harper as he is with Reid, is so utterly clueless as to how schools actually run that he seemingly has no idea that the chaos he writes about above is striking evidence of the total incompetence of Interim Acting Principal Karol Harper, an administrator with not one, not two, but three assistant principals in a school of some 433 students. Instead Brill praises Burgess-Harper, a recent product of Joel Klein’s Leadership Academy as a “new breed of principal.”
Brill’s conversation with Burgess –Harper borders on the surreal and again and again reveals how pathetically ignorant both are about what it takes to run a school. When Burgess –Harper informs Brill that making her school a “model of success is non –negotiable” Brill seems to accept this ridiculous statement – who would or even could negotiate for or against such a position? – as something other than the pure bullshit that it is. Brill attempts to give Burgess-Harper bona fides by quoting a series of emails containing such unlovely fluff as, “ We will continue to do our best until every member of our staff wants his /her son/ daughter, niece, nephew cousin and neighbor to attend our schools,” as if these words were somehow not only meaningful but meaningful actions. Brill sympathizes with Burgess-Harper when she sides with union hating education entrepreneur and corporate con man extraordinaire Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone interns against her own teaching staff, who had the audacity to want a quiet and dignified place to eat their lunch and prepare their classes. Even after a number of teachers had lost their classrooms to the ever expanding Harlem Success Academy, Burgess-Harper, without even bothering to inform the UFT chapter leader, told the numerous, very young and sometimes-out-of-control HCZ interns that they too could use the tiny 15 x 12 foot former -storage-closet “teacher’s lounge” to eat and hang out in even as it drove teachers to eat their lunch and seek a moment’s peace in hallways and stairwells.
Brill is wholly untroubled by the abject level of degradation that an increasing number of NYC teachers and school workers have been forced to live with on a daily basis due to the policies of the Bloomberg regime. They appear to have an unwritten policy that anything that serves to undermine the union and that makes the lives of teachers miserable is considered fair game, in fact, a good thing. There is no better example in Class Warfare of Brill’s undisguised contempt for working people than his ignorant defense of Burgess-Harper’s cynical and divisive move.
Brimming with arrogance and disdain for all things union and admiration for all things charter school, Brlll and Harper seem like two peas in a pod. “Give me the ability to hire and fire the ones I want, “ says Burgess Harper, “ and give me a school day from eight to five like they have on the other side “ (in other words, give her a charter school) “and I’ll have hundreds of Little Einstein’s running around here too” says Burgess-Harper.
“Hundreds of little Einstein’s?” One wonders if Burgess –Harper ever paused to ponder how such an original thinker was famously dulled by instructors who insisted on a rote approach to education and were totally blind to his genius, or considered how such a soul might be out right destroyed by the steady diet of corporate reading programs and standardized garbage students have been subjected to in ever increasing amounts since the advent of corporate education reform.
Indeed, Brill and Harper think so much alike they seem to not only echo each other’s contempt for teachers and unions, they even seem to share hallucinations. When Brill tells Burgess-Harper about the unnamed unknown, unrecognizable, wildly unprofessional “ teacher upstairs from her office I had seen yelling about the days of the week, she
( Burgess-Harper ) seemed to know exactly whom I was referring to.”
Maybe so. It would not be the first time that no one in the building had any idea of what Interim Acting Principal Burgess -Harper was talking about.
Burgess Harper seizes the moment to malign no less than a fourth of her teaching staff, predicting, midway into the year, unsatisfactory ratings for “at least” ten teachers. The ten teachers – of which I was one — Burgess –Harper explained, were not merely ” not effective”, they were also mysteriously contagious in that “their attitude and lack of caring affects many of the others.” It need be understood that the overwhelming majority of the ten, myself included, had never received nor even been in danger of such a negative rating before in their careers.
Brill continues with the following passage, remarkable not merely for its undisguised malice but for the fact that under the reign of Bloomberg it is now completely acceptable for an interim acting principal to predict giving ten teachers a highly damaging unsatisfactory rating, midway through the year before they are even properly observed or given an opportunity to correct whatever it was they were said to be not doing correctly to an investigative journalist. The interview took place in January which meant there was ample time for teachers to redeem themselves providing there was an administrator interested in providing the support they are mandated to provide them. In the following passage you can almost feel the delight of Harper’s interlocutor.
“Burgess Harper said that, in fact, at least ten of her forty teachers are not effective and that “ their attitude and lack of caring affects many others.” She had rated three of them unsatisfactory in the spring of 2010 and said she expected to give the other seven U ratings in 2011. This means that Burgess Harper has dared to give, or plans to give 25 percent of her teachers a U rating in a system that gave that rating to 1 or 2 percent of all teachers before Klein arrived. “
Like all true believers in the cult of corporate education reform, Brill is apparently a true believer, not merely in the innate superiority of very rich people and their right to dictate public policy, but also in the infallibility of principals (whatever they do for whatever reason they do it ) and the salubrious effects of firing as many unionized teachers as they feel like, again when ever they feel like doing it.
Brill apparently neither knows nor cares about the ever more numerous, horrifying, and verifiable reports of principals using unsatisfactory ratings to destroy the careers of teachers they don’t like or to retaliate against union activists, a pattern that has grown exponentially since the DOE has filled as many principal seats as possible with the “new breed” of Leadership Academy graduates and simultaneously corrupted the arbitration process to such a degree that, under Bloomberg, a system ostensibly created to provide due process now results in decisions affirming the judgment of principals a preposterous 99. 6 % of the time. These are figures worthy of Stalin and reek of the same appalling indifference to anything but the ability and resources to employ the power of the state to crush people at will. These are statistics, that is, that should terrify and disgust anyone who believes in anything remotely approximating due process even as they dovetail perfectly with the words of Mayor Mike Bloomberg when, with bloodlessly casual corporate depravity, Bloomberg declared that if he had his way he would thrust 40,000 teachers – half of all NYC teachers — out of work and into the streets, double the pay of those remaining and sardine 70 or so odd students into each classroom. Thus it is no mystery why such corruption is becoming or has become institutionalized, but merely a profound disgrace in which the lives of innocent and hard working teachers have been and will be utterly destroyed until this state savagery prodded by corporatism is exposed for what it is and reformed.
The system has grown so corrupt that former Bronx High School of Science teacher and UFT Chapter Leader Peter Lamphere twice U rated for defending the contractual rights of his colleagues, had to go to court to have one of his U ratings overturned. The system has grown so corrupt that charges that Principal Iris Bilge ordered her assistant principals to U rate 12 teachers were substantiated by the Department of Education’s own Office of Special Investigations and Blige, astoundingly, still retains her job as principal.
Not that anything like that would trouble the mind of a man like Brill, who seems to take the position that what ever any principal says about any teacher is not even to be questioned – up to and including the remarkable claim that 10 out of 40 teachers are ineffective, whose “ lack of caring” somehow mysteriously affects others.
It is particularly striking and revealing that Brill, who spends so many words describing the wardrobe of Jessica Reid or the fabulous apartments and lifestyles of fabulous hedge fund corporate education reformers, sees no reason, no reason at all to ask Burgess-Harper to provide a single example — just one — of the ten teachers sudden ineptitude and incompetence; ineptitude and incompetence, and “lack of caring” mind you, that in most was not even remotely apparent before the ascension of Karol Burgess-Harper.
If he had bothered to ask anyone other than Burgess- Harper, he might have learned that several of the teachers so lacking in caring accompanied students home after tutoring them to assure their safety, or had made countless house calls to the homes of struggling students, or designed plans to educate parents and students about the necessity of good nutrition or, with their own time and their own dime, created a coed intramural softball program that served 60 students. And on and on.
Instead, Brill then gets down to his real passion: trashing the teacher’s union. “Burgess- Harper, “ writes Brill, “ explained that as a result of her more aggressive posture, her relationship with the union’s representative at PS 149 is “really tense.’ In what no one around her half of the building thinks is unrelated, she has been the target of anonymous calls to the city Department of Education investigators hotline alleging improper behavior.”
From the above passage any reader would be excused if they concluded that not only did the PS 149 union representative stoop to making anonymous calls against Interim Acting Principal Harper, thus spitefully and unfairly thwarting her appointment as principal proper, but that the entire school somehow knew about these cowardly acts and told ace investigative reporter Steve Brill.
Just to make sure the reader gets the point, Brill solicits this remarkably vulgar and slanderous confirmation of union beastliness from none other than then sitting NYC Chancellor Joel Klein.
“ The union does this to principals all the time, says Klein. If you do anything to piss them off they put a hit on you. They call the hotline or they get parents to complain. It’s like the mafia.”
Union reps “put a hit on you. “
They “call the hotline.”
They are “like the mafia.”
Mind you these are not the words of a spiteful 16 year old on his first drunk. This man went to Harvard. And this man ran the largest school system in the United States for almost a decade.
Just as Brill’s bellowing slob is meant as an exemplar of all unionized public school teachers across the US of A, rest assured, PS 149’s “union representative ” — he who, like a Mafioso will “put a hit out on you”, he who makes the work of the bold heroic Interim Acting Principal Burgess Harper impossible by constantly making baseless claims of harassment, he who engages in ‘petty rear guard actions” like refusing to allow Geoffrey Canada’s “tutor’s commandeer a tiny teacher’s lounge, he who engages in all manner of “thuggery” – is meant as an exemplar for all the boorish and beastly union representatives across the city and the country who, after a decade of total domination by corporate reformers, somehow still stand for the “status quo,” putting teachers before children, and standing in the way of progress.
That person, as it were, is me.
I have neither the time nor the will at this juncture to point out that literally everything Brill says or rather insinuates about my person is either an outright lie – such as his weasel worded insinuation that I made anonymous calls to the DOE Office of investigators — or a distortion of the truth so grotesque as to render any action I took (or did not take) wholly unrecognizable. Of Brill’s oily implication of me making cowardly anonymous calls, I answer him with his own written acknowledgement that he spoke to but four persons, three of them administrators, associated with PS 149. As three administrators hardly equal “no one around Harper ‘s half of the building” , Brill’s writing once again demonstrates his complete lack of journalistic credibility and total ruthlessness in furthering his ideological fantasies at any cost to any one. Furthermore, I know for a fact that Brill communicated with but one teacher concerning the non –issue of anonymous phone calls about Harper for that teacher was me. Brill , a lawyer and the kind of lawyer who gives other lawyers a very bad name, covers himself by including my statement that I had no knowledge of anonymous calls against Burgess Harper in a footnote. He never let on, of course , that by asking the question he was setting me up for these slimy, preposterous and indeed, one could say, Brill-like acts of pure weaselry.
Brill leads the reader to believe that the only issue keeping Burgess-Harper from being named full time principal was a matter of an anonymous call made concerning Burgess-Harper’s acceptance of the offer of a teacher friend to pick up her daughter one day when Burgess- Harper was staying late in the office. This is truly rich.
The truth is that, when it came to education, Burgess-Harper had an extremely slippery relationship with the codes of the DOE and the laws of city, state and federal government. Harper had no problem, for example, allowing unqualified clerical workers to assume pedagogical positions of the most sensitive possible order without any supervision to speak of, or permitting terrified, totally unqualified student teachers to teach unaccompanied by a certified professional as required by law to save money instead of hiring a substitute.
But these things were child’s play compared to what Harper did a short time before Brill’s happy little confab.
In December of 2010, one month before Brill interviewed Burgess-Harper, the woman orchestrated the craziest, most reckless and most reprehensible act I’ve ever heard any principal undertake anywhere. Without any discussion whatsoever with the parties involved, Burgess Harper called the NYPD and swore out three felony arrest warrants for grand larceny against three prominent members of the PS 149 school community. Arrested were 149 PTA President Sonya Hampton, 149 PTA Treasurer Richard White and a former parent coordinator, all charged with alleged misuse of PTA funds. In a move that staggers the moral imagination, both Hampton and White, neither of whom had any idea of what was about to befall them, were led into a room packed with cops then led out of the building in handcuffs while their children were attending school. More horrible than that, the former parent coordinator, pregnant at the time of her arrest at her home, suffered a miscarriage. White, who had served time for a violent crime committed when he was 19 years old, spent nine days and nine nights incarcerated. As a result, he lost his job. In the end, all were exonerated. Their “crime?” Hampton and White spent PTA funds on a Thanksgiving meal for the faculty and kids in the lunchroom in which Burgess-Harper herself indulged.
The arrests were shocking as both Hampton and White were not only innocent but were (and continue to be) tireless workers and extraordinarily dedicated parent leaders in an environment in great need of parental involvement. Their real problem was that the PS 149 Parent Teacher Association, legally an organization autonomous from a principal’s authority, somehow had not one but two bank accounts. Stranger still, both, somehow shared the same tax ID number. None of this made any sense or was in any way legal, nor was the fact that on one of the accounts, under the leadership of Burgess-Harper, two DC 37 clerical workers, a teacher, and Burgess-Harper herself were signatories. All of this was completely illegal. I have no idea how Burgess-Harper herself avoided arrest but somehow the entire revolting episode was dropped without anyone, save those falsely arrested, suffering any consequences.
The whole situation beggars sense. And it cries out for justice.
All this squalid intrigue and so much more was in the air when Brill came to visit Burgess-Harper and hear her tales of woe about some low-life union rep making anonymous phone calls concerning a teacher innocently picking up Burgess-Harper’s daughter. As with her “ineffective” teachers and the nightmare with the PTA, things were far darker and more complicated than Burgess-Harper cared to reveal or Brill, an investigative journalist who does not investigate, cared to ask about. Such facts could serve only to confound and complicate Brill’s pre-determined conclusions and narrative.
The fact is that Brill’s “ cheerful but hard charging” interim acting principal bore little if any resemblance to the Interim Acting principal the PS 149 community had to deal with and was only slightly less fictitious than Brill’s bellowing fourth grade teacher. Indeed, one gets the creepy feeling that none of these figures — Reid, Harper, or myself — are any more real to Brill that the non existent teacher, but rather animated abstractions serving to illustrate the preconceived notions of most corporate education reformers.
Had Brill, an investigative journalist who does not investigate, actually been doing the work of a journalist instead of a propaganda writer he would have spoken to more than a handful of administrators. Had he done that he would have encountered voices such as that of Richard White, who wrote of Burgess Harper, “ She has successfully destroyed the lives of parents and teachers. We need to get people like Karol Burgess Harper out of the school system. I submit that Karol Harper is a cancer in the lives of our children and in the development of our school system.” Or he would have run into one of the bright young teachers who was so disgusted by Burgess –Harper she left the school but not before she wrote the following words to the district superintendent:
“This year has been the worst year I have experienced thus far at this school. The staff has never been an issue, but we have definitely had to stick together for support this year. With all of the time we have spent together, I know first hand the demoralizing effect certain members of this administration have had on all of us.
Ms. Harper has proven to be unprofessional, untrustworthy and vindictive numerous times. Last Spring, she attempted to threaten my position because I did not go along with something she wanted me to do. This year, I have witnessed her use of observations to threaten teaching careers. She has stated, informally, on many occasions that she is U-rating teachers to “get them out”. She is very aware that I know this because she has stated in a meeting I should not listen to other teachers and their opinions on how she assesses them because they “like to act like they do work, but they really do not.” She constantly asks me about other staff members and the middle school assistant principal. She instigates situations between members of the school family by telling lies and acting like she is protecting each party.
I am uncomfortable and disheartened by her lack of respect for our school, her untrustworthy behavior, and her lack of care for our students and their families. I do not think she is fit to lead ANY school, she has ruined this one and I hope she is NEVER given the chance to ruin another teacher’s or child’s life.”
Of course, none of this was of any interest to Brill even though all of this had come to pass far before the deadline of Class Warfare. I know. Brill contacted me in April and my quote can be found in his book. Brill came to 149 not to find truth – this, like any ideologue, he believes he already possesses — but to find examples to back up his beliefs and to omit all that did not.
In June, just after she was informed of her demotion and much to the disgust of her soon to be former teaching staff, Burgess-Harper executed her threat and U rated a fourth of the teachers at PS 149 (again I was one of them), effectively ending the careers of the three who were untenured. In the strange world of the DOE, Harper’s demotion had zero effect on the judgments she made on the ten teachers. Apparently, the principal is infallible even when the DOE deems them incompetent. By the time Burgess Harper was finally removed, she had driven out teacher after teacher, including two young dedicated workhorses a wise principal would have built a school around, one of whom was the author of the letter quoted above. By the time she was asked to leave PS 149, the school was completely demoralized.
There is a story in all that transpired there, a story far more illuminating than the fantasies that Brill and his kind like to sell, but Brill mentions none of it. Fantasy is easier. It is where we tend to retreat when reality becomes too impossible to bear.
Someday, perhaps sooner than we know, a book like Class Warfare will be looked upon as and studied as a document of a civilization in decay, an artifact of an age so intellectually and spiritually barren as to permit the education of its children to be placed in the hands of clueless hedge fund hustlers and billionaires, a record of a time when America degenerated into nothing less than a decadent, oblivious fantasy land in which our very children were allowed to be exploited as nothing more than just another commodity.
( Thanks to Natalie, Marty, the Quiz and, as ever, Jeanne for their help with this beast. )
Note: See also Gary Rubinstein’s review @garyrubinstein.teachforus.org/2012/03/20/my-review-of-class-warfare-in-the-journal-of-school-choice/